A year ago March, a National Academies report entitled Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research recommended ways of fostering better career prospects for some early-career scientists. This May, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) posted a revised announcement of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Institutional Research Training Grants (known as T32s) with two new provisions that appear aimed at issues highlighted in Bridges. Depending on how these innovations work out in practice, they could herald better mentoring and career-development training for at least some postdocs. But because NIH suggests rather than requires some of the changes and provides no new funds for carrying out any of them, the prospect of real improvement is far from certain.

"Postdoctoral scientists," the Bridges report advised, "should receive improved career advising, mentoring, and skills training." It called on institutions to "broaden educational and training opportunities" to include " training in laboratory and project management, grant writing, and mentoring." It also called on NIH "to foster these changes," especially by "making funds available" to make them happen. And the report urged NIH to develop "enhanced data collection systems on ... all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers, regardless of specific funding mechanism."

The new T32 announcement , which supersedes the former version last revised in 2002, states that, along with training in research techniques, "programs should provide all NRSA trainees with additional professional development skills and career guidance." These should include "instruction and training in grant writing in order to apply successfully for future career development and independent research support ... [as well as] instruction in laboratory and project management."

In addition, a new "Evaluation and Tracking Component" indicates that T32 applications "must describe a strong evaluation and tracking component that will review and determine the effectiveness of all aspects of the program." Such systems "should [track] trainees for a 10-year period" after they finish their NRSAs in order to "determine success or failure of the program."

"Should" versus "must"

Theoretically at least, the new announcement makes teaching postdocs basic career skills and tracking how well their careers progress the formal concerns of NIH and, by extension, of institutions and principal investigators (PIs). But it's not clear that the new provisions will carry much weight among the many factors that determine a proposal's fate, nor that they will produce significant results for postdocs. Experts in deciphering NIH pronouncements note that semantic subtleties such as the difference between "must" and "should" and the exact place where a provision appears within the announcement indicate whether it will be treated as a requirement or a mere suggestion.

The statement concerning career training appears as part of the Research Training Program component, one of the announcement's list of Special Requirements that together help determine each proposal's priority score; this in turn determines the proposal's ranking relative to competing proposals and its chance of being funded. Because the provision uses "should" rather than "must," establishing a program of expanded career training is, at least for now, highly recommended but not absolutely mandatory. In addition, the form and content of that training is left wide open.

The Evaluation and Tracking Component, on the other hand, uses "must," indicating that a system for evaluating program outcomes is required. The component also appears among the Special Requirements and thus contributes to the priority score. Because tracking "should" be done for a decade, that period is strongly recommended rather than absolutely required, and the specific information that institutions choose to track is left largely to their discretion.

Depending on how universities respond, NIH may make career-development training a requirement in the future, experienced readers of institutional tea leaves believe. At present, however, "the language in the announcement is broad because NIH doesn't wish to be prescriptive," NIH spokesperson Don Ralbovsky told Next Wave. "In our experience, the extramural community is in the best position to come up with the best training."

The "guidance" provided in this announcement in fact "reflects what many NRSA training programs, particularly our most successful ones, are already doing with respect to providing career guidance, training in grant writing, and tracking of trainees," NIH's Office of Extramural Research told Next Wave through spokesperson Ralbovsky. "Institutions have considerable flexibility and exercise a great deal of judgment, not only in what guidance programs and tracking systems they choose to develop but also in how they use awarded funds."

Translated from fed-speak, that last phrase about choosing how to use "awarded funds" contains the crucial message that institutions won't be getting any extra money to carry out these new functions. So, despite the efforts of "most successful" programs, the resources that other programs choose to devote to these purposes—and the results that they achieve--will doubtlessly vary considerably.

Results for postdocs?

Some universities and other institutions are already working on ways of teaching career skills to postdocs. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), for example, has organized a partnership of 17 universities and professional societies that are exploring a number of approaches. The University of Pittsburgh, for example, sponsors a series of workshops on "Postdoctoral Professionalism" that highlight skills such as article and grant writing, problem-solving, and using individual development plan. The University of California, San Francisco, presents "Preparing Future Faculty" sessions that give the lowdown on teaching and navigating the academic job market.

Through its Laboratory Management Institute (LMI), UC Davis offers a formal certificate program in how to run a lab. The LMI program is open to postdocs, PIs, and others. (In a uniquely Californian touch, LMI also sponsors LabAct, a troupe of professional actors who provide interactive training in communication and interpersonal relations in the scientific workplace to departments, labs, and other entities.) This coming October, HHMI will issue a guide to developing lab-management courses aimed at universities and professional societies.

But high-quality training does not come cheap. Tuition for the full Davis certificate course is $5250 per person. And no matter how fine a university's career offerings, postdocs can only benefit if they have time to attend. NIH backing for career training will have to not only inspire institutions to commit serious resources but also persuade potentially reluctant PIs to allow or even encourage postdocs to take time away from the bench for activities contributing to their own, rather than the lab's, advancement.If successful, however, this initiative could also focus PIs' attention on the fact that preparing postdocs for careers—and not having them merely provide cheap labor for research projects--is the most important reason for their presence in the nation's laboratories. These incentives would be considerably stronger, however, if NIH moved from merely suggesting to requiring training and found dollars to help institutions pay the bill.

Data collection could also benefit postdocs. If NIH ultimately requires tracking of former postdocs' whereabouts for a substantial number of years, and if the results are made available to the public, Ph.D.s deciding among postdoc positions would have valuable new information on the quality of the help they can expect in launching their careers. This could increase the incentives for PIs to pay serious attention to improving their protégés' employment prospects.

Other questions remain. Would universities open the career training programs to non-NRSA postdocs? Would the programs take a broader approach to career planning than just preparing scientists for academic jobs? As career statistics are sure to show, only a minority of postdocs will ever have the chance to run a university lab--but skills such as budgeting, project planning, and personnel management would help in almost any career a scientist might pursue. The new NIH provisions could therefore signal a real advance in the training that many postdocs receive--or they could mean very little. It all comes down, as a certain former political leader might have put it, to what the definition of "should" should be.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.